After nearly four years grappling with the Chinese censorship board, Ning Hao's darkly comic crime caper finally comes to the screen and proves largely worth the wait.
Back in 2009, Shanxi-born filmmaker Ning Hao was shaping up to be one of China's most exciting young filmmakers. His 2005 feature, Mongolian Ping Pong, had proved a hit on the festival circuit, and his follow-up, the comedy caper Crazy Stone, was produced by Andy Lau and became a surprise domestic hit at the Chinese box office. The film helped launch the career of comedian Huang Bo, who also starred in Ning's next film, Crazy Racer, in which Ning continued to develop his style of employing different regional dialects, witty wordplay, slapstick humour and riffing heavily on well known Chinese and American films. Ning's comedies of errors used large ensembles of eccentric characters and intertwining stories, and have been compared favourably to the early films of the Coen brothers and Guy Ritchie.
Then something went wrong. Ning's next feature, No Man's Land, was to tell the story of a pro-bono lawyer working in the far west of China, who is sent to a far-flung desert community to defend a poacher accused of murdering a police officer. The cast again featured Huang Bo, this time in a supporting role, with Xu Zheng in the lead. All set for release in early 2010, No Man's Land suddenly fell foul of SARFT, China's notoriously opaque and unpredictable censorship board.
The film was branded "nihilistic", "depraved" and "out of touch with reality", according to news sources, while Ning himself was reprimanded for having "forgotten his social responsibility as an artist." Ning apparently re-cut the film extensively at least twice, but to no avail. The film was then shelved and the director went on to make the infinitely less interesting, but commercially successful Guns And Roses in 2012.
But now, for reasons that are still not entirely clear, No Man's Land has been cleared for release, and opened on the mainland last week to enthusiastic business that saw it debut at Number 1. Exactly what Ning Hao was forced to remove in order to secure its release is still unclear, but it's not difficult to see why the film might have caused problems. No Man's Land is populated solely by criminals and ne'er-do-wells, lacking a moral code, dismissive of law and order and out only for themselves, regardless of who or what gets in their way. Everyone has an agenda, and the film's solitary traffic cop - the sole bastion of authority - is seen as petty and vindictive when not being largely ignored or humiliated by everyone else.
Xu Zheng plays the lawyer Pan Xiao, who reluctantly heads out into the Gobi Desert, where his client - Duo Bujie's nasty falcon poacher - has been accused of killing a cop. When Pan gets him off the hook, the poacher lends Pan his car to get home, and so begins a road trip plagued with incident and adventure. Pan encounters a pair of trouble-making truck drivers, a swindling rest-stop owner, and a young prostitute (Yu Nan) desperate to be rescued. Add to the mix an increasingly angry and bloodthirsty poacher, desperate to track down his backstabbing accomplice (Huang Bo) and retrieve his falcons, as well as the pesky cop, and everything is in place for another classic Ning Hao caper.
There are echoes of films like Ted Kotcheff's Wake in Fright and Oliver Stone's U-Turn onscreen, as Pan's journey quickly spirals out of control and what should have been a minor inconvenience soon becomes a life-threatening odyssey from which nobody will emerge unscathed. In fact, many characters do die, and for one long stretch of the movie, Pan is driving around with a poorly concealed corpse on his backseat. The pace is hilariously manic and the characters are fantastically vibrant, duplicitous and amoral, to such a degree it is a surprise SARFT ever released the film.
But No Man's Land is also incredibly well made, with special praise going to Du Jie for his gorgeous cinematography. Du previously worked with Ning on Mongolian Ping Pong and clearly has a great eye for shooting wide open spaces. The Gobi Desert becomes a vital part of the movie, and looks both hostile and alluring through Du's meticulous lens.
The performances are uniformly strong, with Xu Zheng staying just the right side of desperately deranged to keep the audience rooting for him, while Huang Bo, as ever, makes for a delightfully eccentric bandit and Yu Nan is a seductive yet scheming femme fatale. Duo Bujie's taciturn villain, murderously careening across the desert in his indestructible truck, is a worthy adversary to such larger than life characters, but what Ning's script ultimately reveals, is that nobody is innocent, and everyone is just as ruthless and cutthroat as each other when it comes to survival.
The film's opening act does feel a little rushed, as if some of the more on-the-nose criticisms of "the system" had been excised, while the second half is more drawn out than was perhaps necessary, but these quibbles are minor of a film that has emerged from the ashes of SARFT-induced limbo to become a bona-fide commercial success. It is almost fortuitous that No Man's Land is being seen after Guns And Roses, as we can now pretend it is a glorious return to form, and hope that Ning will continue in this vein, rather than feel the need to placate the authorities any longer.
Ultimately, No Man's Land paints a pretty bleak and disenfranchised picture of modern day China, but unlike, say, Jia Zhangke's A Touch of Sin - another film SARFT was reluctant to see released at home - Ning does so with a sly wink and a swift prod to the ribs. Both films expose China as a country with a flagrant disregard for human life, where money talks and only the strongest survive, but while Jia is somewhat crestfallen in his - ultimately more realistic - portrayal, surmising that the country is going straight to hell, Ning gleefully accepts that there's still some fun to be had on the way down.